Hans Ajieren BS’18, a recent electrical engineering graduate at The University of Texas at Dallas, has received another distinguished scholarship to further his career researching innovative devices to treat neurological disorders.
It is the seventh year in a row — as long as UT Dallas has been a Phi Kappa Phi chapter member — that a student or alumnus from the University has received a fellowship from the honor society.
Ajieren will use his award to pursue a PhD in electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University, where he spent the summer of 2016 researching implantable devices in the biomedical engineering lab of Dr. Pedro P. Irazoqui. Ajieren will continue his research on neural interfacing devices that enable the electrical stimulation of nerves to treat neurological disorders.
“The main thing for me is the relationships I established. I already know the resources available at Purdue and the projects that I could have an impact on. That, to me, is really valuable,” Ajieren said. “This will be a good carryover for what I did at UT Dallas. I have found a mentor who understands my strengths and knows my research interests. I’ll be hitting the ground running as a PhD student.”
Before he begins his doctoral work, Ajieren is taking advantage of a summer break to visit friends across the country and do plenty of biking, an activity he enjoyed as part of the UT Dallas Cycling and Triathlon Club.
He credited Dr. Douglas Dow, associate dean of the Hobson Wildenthal Honors College and clinical professor of political science, with providing invaluable help with his fellowship application.
“I can’t thank Dr. Dow enough for strengthening and honing my story as an applicant. It was my last application as a Comet. This was a nice way to wrap it up,” Ajieren said.
The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi awards 51 fellowships of $5,000 each and six at $15,000 each to members entering the first year of graduate or professional study.
Each Phi Kappa Phi chapter may nominate just one candidate a year, so competition within a university can be intense. Four of the seven UT Dallas winners have received the organization’s Marcus L. Urann Fellowship.
Nancy Fairbank BA’17, a political science graduate, won the Urann Fellowship of $15,000, as did Blake Eaton BA’16, a political science graduate. Dina Shahrokhi BA’11, a political science graduate, was the first UT Dallas student to win the Urann Fellowship in 2013. Three other students have won $5,000 fellowships: Raheel Ata BS’15, a biochemistry graduate; Kayla Klein BS’14, a neuroscience and biology graduate; and Emily Lichtenheld BS’12, an economics and international political economy graduate.
Fairbank, Ata, Klein, Shahrokhi and Lichtenheld also are alumni of the McDermott Scholars Program.
Ajieren, who grew up in Houston and was a graduate of the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, began working in a materials science lab as a freshman at UT Dallas, helping to develop a new cochlear implant made from shape memory polymer, a material that changes its mechanical properties in response to changes in temperature.
In the Advanced Polymer Research Lab of Dr. Walter Voit BS’05, MS’06, associate professor of materials science and engineering in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, Ajieren was tasked with developing an electronic device to insert the shape memory polymer cochlear implants.
Voit said that while Ajieren was accepted at several prestigious universities, including Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley, he made the best choice for graduate school.
“Hans has exhibited decision-making skills on par with the best graduate students, and I’m confident that Purdue was the best choice,” Voit said. “Pedro Irazoqui is one of the top researchers in the country and the type of mentor who grants his students great agency in leading research projects. I am sure Hans will make the most of the opportunity in graduate school and beyond.
“Hans’ repeated national recognitions show that he is a student of the highest caliber. He has consistently shown himself to be a strategic risk-taker who can excel in academic research,” Voit said.
As a sophomore at UT Dallas in 2016, Ajieren received a full scholarship from the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program. He also placed third that year in the Undergraduate Research Poster Contest Finals. This spring, he received an honorable mention from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program and was among UT Dallas’ first semifinalists for the Hertz Foundation Graduate Fellowship Award.
Ajieren also has volunteered with Reaching and Inspiring Student Engineers (RISE), a student organization that reaches out to area schoolchildren to increase their interest in STEM fields, and with IntelliChoice, a nonprofit tutoring organization begun by Dr. Gil Lee, professor of electrical engineering. Ajieren also was a mentor in the Freshman Mentor Program and the Academic Excellence Scholarship office.
Those volunteer experiences encouraged Ajieren to pursue his PhD. Eventually, he would like to teach at a research university.
“Sharing my knowledge of science at various levels is something I discovered I had a passion for,” he said. “When you find things you really connect to, you find time for it.”